Variable Weapon Damage

Hi there,
I spent some time thinking about variable weapon damage. I only played games where weapons do variable damage, meaning a dagger dies less damage than say a warhammer. This makes sense in games that have a system detailed enough to give weapons with less damage some form of advantage in another field.

But in Moldvay D&D and also in M&M I am not sure if there is really a mechanical advantage for, e.g., a clerk to use a Poignard instead of a saber. The saber is first in initiative and does way more damage. You could argue that a dagger is concealable and a saber isn’t, but if we just take a look at the goals of combat to either break the enemie party’s morale or reduce the enemie’s HP pool to zero, then there is no incentive for a player to pick a low damage weapon over a high damage weapon if the player’s character has no Special skill that favors the lower damage weapon (e.g. the Filou’s knifework).

How do you handle such situations. It bothers me from a game design perspective and I’m not sure if I’m just missing something or if this really is a problem that translates from old-school D&D into all variations of the game that build on it.

Maybe you have some insight?

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I feel you, man. The D&D-style of weapon damage is not my favorite.

A weapon in the real world is designed to efficiently transfer energy from the wielder or firing mechanism to the victim or target with the goal to kill or destroy. Weapons that don’t efficiently kill are relegated to the oddities case at the museum.

It doesn’t make much sense that a poignard or pistol does less damage than a sword. All three are remarkably efficient instruments and were in wide-spread use during our period. I would even venture a guess that knives killed more people than swords did, sheerly on their prevalence alone. Or rocks for that matter. The French people loved to toss rocks, bricks and paving stones at anyone who raised their ire. Very efficient weapon those rocks!

However, our system is not a probabilistic statistical model of physics or anthropological data. We’re making a game here. And in the game, the damage codes need to be scoped to measure our area of study. For us, based on Moldvay D&D, that area is armed skirmishes with four to eight participants per side taking place on city streets or dungeon tunnels. In this narrowed scope, the numbers do clarify a bit. My poignard and pistol are a bit less formidable when confronting a wall of swords, muskets and pikes. The potential for damage to the opposing side is less, which we represent in the stacked damage codes.

That said, damage codes can’t be discussed without discussing hit points. When I build a damage system in a game, I create a baseline human character. In Burning Wheel, it was a human with B3 abilities. In M&M, I decided that if a poignard or pistol did 4 points of damage maximum, then most people needed to have 4 hit points or less. With 4 hit points, landing a poignard strike would kill 25% of the time (barring bonuses). Compared to crime and battle statistics, 25% of death is wildly high. Murder with a knife often takes many, many blows to do the deed. But in our case, we’ll mitigate the deadliness with a to-hit roll. If most folks have a 10 Strength, then we can cut the potential damage output to about half—13% if knife wounds will prove deadly on a strike. Still very high, but a number that works well enough in the context of a four hour session during which many rolls will be made.

Fortunately, that’s the not the final part of the equation. Reaching zero hit points in M&M doesn’t mean instant death. Instead, it triggers a roll on the Mortal Coil or Hors de Combat table. So 13% of people struck by a poignard or pistol will fall down, stunned. Some of those people will eventually recover, but be forever changed in mind or body. A small percentage of those people will not recover—struck dead where they stood.

Morale also factors in! Very few of us will fight to the death. When faced with our mortality, we often rapidly rethink our actions. M&M reflects this as asking for Sang Froid tests when certain conditions are met. Being knocked down to 1 HP is one of those conditions. So another 13% of knife attacks will trigger this condition. If most folks have a S-F of 1, then 83% of those folks (about 11% of knife attack victims) will be required to check their morale.

Based on that logic, 24% of knife strikes in M&M should result in a deleterious effect beyond just HP loss. One in four—roughly—seems like good odds for the attacker. I certainly wouldn’t want to undertake any operation for which I only had a 76% chance of coming out unscathed…

The last factor in the structure of damage codes is the hit point distribution of player characters. You’ll note that most lifepaths give less hit points than one would find in Moldvay classes. There’s a lot of classes that start with 2d2, and only a few that start with 2d4. And once you start leveling, your increases range from 0-2, rather than adding a new roll for your starting benefit.

Even so, a typical 3rd level starting character has some resilience. 2d2 (2.5 HP) + [0-1]*2 (1 HP) + Constitution bonus (.26 HP avg) = 3.76 average starting hit points. Their additional levels ensures that they’re not in the 2 HP range, which would make them very fragile. A soldier gets significantly more HP: 2d4 (4.5 HP) + [1-2]*2 (3 HP) + Con (.26 HP)= 7.76 HP to start on average.

Soldiers are clearly the problem. A knife strike or pistol shot won’t threaten them with death unless it’s a critical hit. So why not adjust their HP down and flatten everyone to 2d2 plus level plus Con? Well, niche protection, that’s why. And tradition, I suppose. But I want to reduce the chance that my erstwhile Athos falls to an enemy ball before he gives his first thrust. I want that member of the Cardinal’s Guard to wing him, forcing Athos to fight even more desperately once they cross swords. It just feels better, even if it isn’t realistic in terms of the dynamics of a blackpowder pistol shot.

And to further expand on tradition, it’s in the bones. We built on Moldvay, so we had a certain toolkit to work with. I took my best shot at fidelity and credibility with those tools, but I freely admit that it is an imperfect solution.


Good points. I’m always glad when you decide to comment on your design. Thanks!

The HP difference betwee die the characters isn’t that big of a problem in my eyes. I always interpret them as being more than just health. They also stand for the character’s ability to avoid harm based on their experience. That’s why it makes sense that a soldier has more HP than a clerk, and why experienced characters have higher HP than beginner characters.

But yeah, the weapon damage can be somewhat neglected based on the many possibilities to knock a character out of combat. I see that.

Thanks again for the clarification, Luke!

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Sorry for double-posting, but have you ever considered pushing poignards and pistols up one or two steps? That would make them a bit more viable. Just a thought I had.
If you did, why did you chose to make them relatively slow?

Pistols are the fastest firearm, but they have a penalty when used while engaged by a melee weapon. In practice, players are discharging pistols and then closing in with their rapiers. So the system incentives are working there. Also, I’ll be publishing a cavalry pistol in 1648 that does 1d6 damage. It’s a flint lock monstrosity (that I had the pleasure of firing once). The default pistols in the game are the smaller wheel-lock variety.

But in a world where pikes and halberds were in prominent use, the poignard isn’t a point of emphasis. When the Parisians take up arms for the Fronde, they take to the streets with muskets, pikes and halberds. We have to respect that.


Ha, I see. I was thinking of Melee Pistol Initiative.

Maybe my case is a bit specific, because 2/3 of my players are non-violent civilians who won’t touch anything larger than a dagger.

That melee pistol initiative is in there because I find the myth of deadly pointblank firearms shots to be tiresome. You’re going to get stabbed, bruh.

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I would like to respond to some implications to my points and your preference for differentiated hit dice.

I want to explicitly state the implicit: given the damage hit point scales, if you increase damage of poignards and pistols, you punish the baseline character. If your minimum damage code is 1d6, then 2d2 characters are quite a bit more fragile. If you increase baseline hit points to match, you’re extending the length of combats as there’s more HP to churn through.

And, in fact, the whole world becomes a bit cartoonish in either direction. The common folk dropping like flies from stab wounds or skirmishes become grunt-fests as we chip away at mountains of HP.

Again, I don’t love the variable damage system, but I wanted to be clear about how many design factors I weighed when building it. It was an exercise that took years of testing and tuning.

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I understand those points. And I didn’t want to imply that you didn’t put time or thought into combat.

A flat 1d6 damage for every weapon would make combat deadlier, that’s true, and I’m not sure if I would be completely happy with that approach, either. But I think that the non-viable damage option fits the abstraction of Moldvay D&D better. Since we only really differentiate weapons through damage and initiative (and that is big advantage compared to Moldvay D&D), the variable weapon damage adds a layer of differentiation that doesn’t really fit into the otherwise abstract combat.

But it’s no deal breaker for me.

Edit: Do you personally roll on Hors de Combat for your PC’s enemies or just for the henchmen?

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